ENGL 272 – Issues and Themes: Special Topics II: Homer’s Iliad and Modern Literature
This course, which blends close-reading of a canonical literary text with the opportunity to consider the lasting influence of that text on writers of later periods, is structured around Homer’s epic poem The Iliad (read in a modern translation). This verse epic, which scholars believe to date from the 7th century BCE, is arguably the archetypal tale of warfare, a work of heroism and loss, of cities destroyed and civilisations in crisis. It resonates through the ages, from the siege of Troy (c. 1250 BCE) through the upheavals of two World Wars into recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, simultaneously celebrating and mourning the lives of the young men who pursue glory in battle but cannot evade the death that so often comes with it. From Roman times onwards, writers and artists have returned to Homer’s epic to frame their own works, cementing as they did so the status of the original as a poem that has retained its relevance long after the original circumstances of its composition have passed.
Having studied Homer’s text in detail, we will consider its influence on the work of more recent authors, from the poets T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden through the striking re-interpretations of the poem by Christopher Logue who, although he knew no Greek, ‘interpreted’ the Iliad in his poem-sequence War Music, as an epic for the late-20th century. We will conclude by looking at two contemporary responses to the poem: Madeline Miller’s award-winning novel The Song of Achilles which focuses attention on the relationship between the hero and his companion Patroclus, and Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial, a work that subtly establishes connections between the often-overlooked casualties of Homer’s poem and those who have lost their lives in more recent military actions. Although the original is 2,700 years old, then, we will see on this course that Homer’s epic remains not just an integral part of our common cultural heritage, but also a text that challenges and continues to inspire writers to respond in their own way to its epic content.
The texts will be studied with a focus on ‘close reading’ skills that will enhance your enjoyment of a text and give you the tools to analyse and critique the works you read in future, whether for academic study or your own pleasure. By reading carefully, thinking at length about the formal properties and content of the texts, and learning how to draft and edit written work students will acquire skills that are held in high regard not just in academic circles but in the workplace as well.